Vee Banionis - CEO of Flip180, LLC (magazine design services company, interviewing online at desk)

Interview with Flip180 CEO, Vee Banionis

You know you’re a magazine fanatic when you dutifully skim almost every magazine that passes your vision. We recently interviewed Vee Banionis of Flip180 Media to discover his thoughts on the state and future of online magazines, the future of print, and what resources magazine publishers can make use of. We’ll also ask Vee about the cutting-edge magazine design services that Flip180 offers its own growing list of publisher client startups.

Mark (123interface): Hi, Vee.

Vee (CEO of Flip180, LLC @ flip180media.com): Hi, Mark. Thanks for inviting me for this little chat today!

Mark: Very welcome.  Thank you for accepting! I’m a fan of what you’re doing for smaller and startup publishers.

Vee, for those who don’t know you or your company yet, could you tell us a little about how Flip180 got started as a magazine design company?

Vee: Well, it started with me. Actually, I had been involved in this [magazine design services] industry for over the past decade or so before starting Flip180, LLC. I wanted to focus on the magazine publishing niche to a large extent and that has been a large source of our clientele. We continue to make that our main focus, but we have extended our reach to be more inclusive of near-genres of content consumption, like blogs, print and online catalogs, and Ecommerce that often goes with an online catalog. 

Likewise, my team is from the print and online design and WebDev worlds. We’ve had similar timelines. I actually started out as a web developer myself. Working on magazines for some clients, over time,I just fell in love with magazines. I was already deep into the technology side. So I had the magazine bug and the WebDev chops. The Flip180 “band” came together and we’ve been making great music together ever since!

Mark: And you guys seem to work well together from what I can see. So, I want to begin with your thoughts on the current state of online magazines and how many promising new online periodical and magazine publishers may be missing the boat on the technological strategy side right now.

Vee: That’s a very good question. It’s funny, you know. Magazines were supposed to be dying when the publishing model shifted more to online. While it’s true that many print-based magazine publishing business models were impacted and often disrupted completely, it didn’t spell the death of magazines. Nor did it really spell the decline of magazine consumption, which was what a lot of publishers feared. They thought blogs would supplant magazines. Even print magazine editions continue to have a place in the new media paradigm.

“…print seemed like the only air magazines could breathe for a long time.”

Mark: Was that all just a print industry bubble sort of issue?

Vee: That’s right. It’s mainly a print industry reaction from some very entrenched print publishers who simply hadn’t gotten far into either digital or the analytics side of marketing their digital publications. To be fair, print seemed like the only air magazines could breathe for a long time. And I think a lot of people thought that it would all be blogs and vlogs and just a couple of major online news publishers. None of that really became true. Print revenue took a steep hit in a short number of years. That’s true, of course. Today, however, we know that scare was largely unfounded for the digitally-aware publisher. A new digital generation of consumers had begun to supplant print and that was probably going on the interim while publishers were just getting acquainted with digital analytics. But there was a surprise there, as well.

Mark: Yes, the ROI model wasn’t a good fit for many industries online at first. Too binary with no s of shades of progress. Digital analytics is about differing levels of success and measuring those in the right order normally. Hard for many non-digital businesses to adapt to…Sorry, but what was the surprise you were mentioning?

Vee: Yes, the surprise – and this was a bombshell for many publishers – was that many Millennials it turns out are highly attracted to print. Many of them simply didn’t have the same ubiquitous experience of print, news stands, etc. They’d already grown up digital. So, print has an aura of mystique and almost something like a connection with a lost tradition for them that they naturally feel at a loss for otherwise.

Magazines scattered on a Millennial's bed (in relatiion to magazine design services)
The Millennial experience of print magazines

Mark: You mean they feel drawn to print because it’s a tactile kind of experience of the world of objects?

Vee: Yes, exactly! A magazine was a special object with a cultural significance, a way to adapt to change. And while many can’t imagine not having had print magazines in their lives or doing everything manually rather than by computer – going shopping, for instance – for them it’s more of a balance thing. They feel something has been missing as soon as they come into contact with a magazine. It’s kind of soothing, calming, grounding in a way that it probably wasn’t even for previous print consumers who lived in the pre-digital world where everything was solid.

Mark: That makes sense. With that in mind, what do you see as the future of the magazine?

Vee: Well, I think we have another big change we’re already in the middle of now. It’s going on in the background, but it’s really already pulling magazine consumers in without noticing. And that’s voice assistant magazine content consumption.

Mark: Siri, Alexa, and Cortana?

Vee: Exactly. But also the devices and that whole experience. So, smartwatches and other wearable technology is exploding into the consumption behavior arena right now. Big magazines like The Atlantic or The New Yorker — as well as widely-circulated, multi-platform newspapers like The New York Times are beginning to take the medium quite seriously. ONline media will continue to grow into this space and before long we won’t know how we got along without it.

I think it’s already happened to a large extent. Now it’s just beginning to sink in. Everyone is trying out virtual assistants even if they hadn’t been tapped into voice commands previously. I think it’s a saturation point issue. It’s now “real” for every generation. Grandparents are getting exposed to it through their children and grandkids.

Mark: And there are ways that voice will be impacting digital marketing. SEO has already been impacted and voice continues to grow as a voiced content concern. Structured data and microformats like rich answers. Quick answers in search results to natural human queries.

Vee: Yes. That’s one of your areas! And that’s what we’ve been learning, also. And of course, SEO is such a foundational aspect of marketing online – making your content fully accessible and easy to find.

Mark: So what do you recommend in the way of resources for magazine publishers right now?

Vee: Well, for one thing, a VUI [voice user interface] that allows their content to be found by voice assistants. Then there is getting that content available to those assistants via whatever channel will allow that at that time for the publisher. And lastly, a robust marketing toolset that allows them to market their content. 

“…Technologists know the importance of getting ahead of the analytics, but a lot of business decision-makers in publishing can easily become skeptical about digital analytics.”

Mark: How commonly is VUI being taken seriously?

Vee: Well, that’s one of the more shocking things. It’s often getting sidetracked due to misunderstandings and a lack of open analytics. Technologists know the importance of getting ahead of the analytics, but a lot of business decision-makers in publishing can easily become skeptical about digital analytics. It’s kind of a running theme, like with taking their magazine online. And yet, we all know that was where much of consumption was going.

Mark: Yes, business decisions are surprisingly at odds with technological common sense at times…you’re often dealing with an older non-digital generation – or the apprentice of such people who didn’t emphasize digital technology as essential to their business. The non-digital version of their world just made sense. It was “complete”.

Vee: Yes, it’s a challenge. So, we think it is good to consume some of the industry magazines like Folio. They’re helping publishers understand the industry from a place of authority and deep immersion.

Mark: And your own agency provides magazine design and development services. So, what would you say to the average magazine publishing startup with a vision of where they want to go?

Vee: I’d say that they’ll need to consider their niche very carefully before launch and do their homework. Most of the budgetary waste in magazine publishing has to do with not doing thorough research on the competition, on the market. Competitive research or intelligence (CI) is a great way to get insight into online competitors. SEMrush is a tool that we use ourselves increasingly for such situations where the client knows the rough niche they want to cover, but haven’t yet really penetrated the competitive view. Independent market research should really come first, but then use online CI to see how the identified competitors of note are getting their traffic and then think how to capture eyeballs with similar or identical tactics. Sometimes it can reveal way more than traditional market research because you see the upstarts with big ambitions ad small market share coming up from the sides of the niche leader.

Mark: I love SEMrush! Our clients sometimes don’t understand the value right off the bat, though. And it’s hard to brand them on a super-complex, multifaceted digital marketing tool. And that’s sad for the average startup. They don’t know why the marketing person is telling them they should invest in their own toolset. They don’t see the urgency to plug into the analytics, the CI.

Vee: I resonate with that. Yes, we can’t expect the business suits to always get the technology, not from the older generation especially. So as I’m sure you do, we try to maintain some in-house slots for that but it’s not really in the best interests of the client to let that live in someone else’s account. Still, we do it for those who just can’t wrap their heads around the necessity of in-house control over key marketing accounts.

Mark: Okay. So how do you recommend magazine startups handle the marketing strategy?

Vee: Well, magazine publishing is just one area of what we do, but it’s a main area nonetheless. We advise them to consider having both a print and an online version of the magazine. And preferably, the online version should be a responsive website with room for a VUI to grow onto the content surface. One way to make sure that is simplified is to use WordPress. But however they think of their CMS options, not considering VUI early on will probably be a problem later.

Mark: That makes sense, yes. So the options narrow as you go and the website infrastructure and marketing and teams grow more complex and get busier. 

Vee: Yes. Planning is great before you begin. Planning as you go, however, gets increasingly difficult and becomes an albatross. 

“…video is growing more important – even for magazines…”

Mark: And what about video? A lot has been said in the past decade about the role of video in relation to text content.

Vee: Good thinking! Yes, video is growing more important – even for magazines! Many magazines that do well have discovered along the way that video is crucial for not just providing another perspective or media layer, but to compete with all those online videos on the same subject matter.  The thing for magazines is branding. So, just as a Millennial consumer of content is heavy into a particular YouTube channel they follow, the first magazine in a niche that supplements their text content with video content and does it well…will tend to brand that younger, video-centered demographic more easily and more quickly than those that lag behind. It’s an opportunity with a limited window. It’s not impossible to do later, but it grows harder to change a mind already branded. You kind of lose those consumers. Hard lesson.

Mark: Yes, branding just gets more important over time, not less. It’s almost a tribal thing. The cult of the brand.

Vee: And that’s true for magazine publishing just as in digital marketing.

Mark: So how do you perform your magazine design services for your Flip180 clients?

Vee: Well, assuming they’ve done their niche research and that’s already something they’re sure about, we’re just doing the design at that stage. So, we advise them on how competitors are designing latest technologies into their own publications. We look at how we can anticipate the market a tad, and we advise on that sort of thing. Things that aren’t available in every magazine yet – things like highlighting, bookmarking, etc. – and we show them how they can be proactive on that stuff without overcommitting on Web Dev.

Mark: It’s actually quite easy for a commercial CMS like WordPress.

Magazine design services portfolio examples from Flip180Media.com
Portfolio snapshot from Flip180Media.com

Vee: Yes, so we encourage them to factor that stuff in early on. Sometimes, though, instead of helping a print magazine to go digital, we may actually be helping a digital magazine expand into print for branding reasons. Either way, we look at the current design (if any) and how competitors are thinking in terms of layouts, covers, etc. I usually still am the one to consult with the company’s design effort contact and I’ll ask for their design input, we’ll work up a mockup sketch, present them with the visual gist of that, get feedback till it’s solidified, then go to buildout.

Mark: And developing – coding – can be a big part of that.

Vee: Yes. We don’t really escape coding that much. It’s integral to good customized magazine website design. Without coding, we’re unable to finetune things. It’s also a matter of which CMS is suitable for the needs. Sometimes, we might end up having to tell the client, “Look. Your CMS is bad at that. Here are some alternative options we think are quality.” Or maybe they will rethink how to do something based on our feedback before all input is locked down.

 Mark: How is social media marketing impacting magazines in your opinion?

Vee: Well, it’s huge, of course. Getting the content in front of the magazine audience is not the trick, though. The trick is doing it in a clever way that entices rather than beats the audience over the head.

Mark: And the approach you recommend instead?

Vee: Letting the content spill out into the open seems to work way better than keeping it siloed. And it’s actually something a good magazine publisher should already have an understanding of. Sort of like promo copy that goes on the cover quotes, images of the feature story with an unexpected quote. Tackling the article with differing headlines for differing sub-audiences within your larger audience.

There are lots of ways to do it, but they boil down to the teaser approach rather than the pitch. Too many don’t factor in psychology of gossip. It’s human nature to want to solve a mystery or find out why so-in-so said such an unexpected thing about a topic the audience cares about.

This is a perfect use of the multichannel approach where multiple channels are exposing the new issue from this or that angle. Multiple channels are driving traffic to the main magazine website. Many angles are drawing attention to the content where those prospective readers are now: social media channels, YouTube, whatever.

Mark: Yes, multichannel is certainly not easy for every business to do, it seems. And as a marketer, I try to put the teaser out there as a need for the content side of the organization. It gets hijacked by in-house-teams sometimes, though, even misdirected. Or a misguided PR point person will jump all over this teaser from a PR perspective and I’m like…that’s not truly even relevant here, is it?

Some business owners – smaller businesses, especially – are pretty straight-laced and have very sewed up marketing leads. But they don’t see how they’re talking to a dying demographic, ignoring what would be their only replacement demographic.

Vee: Yes, I think this is partly a generational divide. A lot of the Gen X demographic get it – like yourself – but a lot are going to be feeling for the ground of familiarity beneath them. The Boomers are not all Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Most Boomers or pre-boomers have never been that tied into digital technology. Many Gen X still aren’t. 

Mark: They’re recalling a previous familiar order of marketing and publishing propriety  – sort of “how one does these things” – that has vanished somewhat in the new technological landscape we now inhabit. The impulse can be to turn away and focus back on the world through the more familiar frame.

Vee: Well said, yes. I think that’s accurate. You really are a marketer! [laughs]

Mark: So what do you recommend as a final parting word to small and medium-sized magazine publishers who want to aim for the future and skip all the most common traps?

Vee: Just to trust their own intuition as younger people or in the case of older people, to understand the newer generations’ content consumption and worldview – to immerse a little into that mode. Psychology is way more important and more subtle an area than they may realize.

Mark: I really would have to agree with that…

And definitely, businesses should ask themselves how the audience is going to be finding or hearing about their leading competitor’s content in the next 5 years and then begin planning for that immediately. From the business research end to the design and marketing planning, they’ve got to work it all out as much as possible before beginning to pour money into teams, a website, and marketing. Just having a clear vision of where the technology will be can transform everything.

Mark: Amazingly good advice! Thanks, Vee.

Vee: My pleasure! Thank you, Mark!

Vee Banionis, Founder and CEO of Flip180, LLC, a WebDev company specializing in magazine design services and headquartered in Woodland Hills, CA.

Mark Brimm
Mark Brimm is founder and Marketing Director @ 123interface.com and author of AdWords University and The SEO Instinct.

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